You’re listening to IndiaBioSpeaks, your one-stop resource for science news and careers
Hello and welcome to IndiaBioSpeaks, a new podcast series by IndiaBioscience, where we are going to bring you the latest news, opinion and discussions on life science research and careers in India.
With this episode, we are starting a new season of IndiaBiospeaks called “Crafting your career”. In today’s episode, and throughout this series, we are going to discuss science careers in India. We are going to talk about what are the best ways in which one can explore different career options. And once you have chosen a career path, what is the best way to pursue it.
My name is Lakshmi and joining me in the studio today are Shreya and Smita, whom you’ve met in our introductory episode (please do check that out if you haven’t already)
Let us jump right into the discussion with the question of what does a ‘career in science’ mean? What are the various options available? And what sort of qualifications would you need to pursue such a career path?
Let’s begin with the first of those points. What are the options, for a student, or in fact, anyone who is interested in a career in science?
There used to be this perception that there was only one straight-line path available if you want to be in science. Particularly, if you are a PhD student, from your conversations with your professors, and your prior-exposure to the academic setup, you may be conditioned with this idea The idea is this - after your MSc (or BSc), you join a PhD program, you obtain a degree, then you become a postdoc and do a series of postdocs in different labs, then you apply for a faculty position, and once you get that, then you climb the ranks from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor, and that’s the only way to go.
And this indeed is the path usually followed by researchers who are in faculty positions in universities and research institutes worldwide, and of course in India as well.
But what is important to understand is that today, the landscape of science has changed, has expanded enough to be considered as an ecosystem in itself. And in this broad ecosystem, the academic route is no longer the only direction or path that is available. In fact a very small percentage of science graduates actually end up going this route.
I agree Smita. It is a well-known fact that the number of PhD students who graduate every year is far greater than the number of faculty positions that are available in all the research institutes and universities combined. This is a worldwide phenomenon. In fact most studies estimate that less than 10% (and this figure is often less) of graduating PhDs is going to go on to become tenured professors.
So what happens to those remaining 90% or more? There is a very inaccurate perception that these 90 % represent failed academics - those who couldn’t make the cut to be in that top 10% . And if you just look a little deeper, you find this is simply not true. Most of the individuals in this 90 % are just as bright, just as motivated and just as successful as those in academia.
[Agreement from Smita and Lakshmi]
The fact is that a PhD doesn’t prepare you just for an academic career - it provides an all-round training that can allow people to follow successful career trajectories in a variety of fields, which they can choose according to their individual interest and passion.
And we will come back to this point a little later in this podcast, what does a degree in science prepare you for.
But first, as we have discussed, there are lot of excellent choices for working within the sciences. Smita, what are some of these options in India?
Well Lakshmi, there are quite a few, and of course, we cannot cover them all in this podcast. Just like we discussed, there is the option of becoming an academic scientist, working in an University or a Research Institute. You can also carry out research in the R&D department of an industry, for .eg. in a pharmaceutical or a biotech company. Other than these, you could also become a facility manager or a technician. Within industry itself, there are many career options in addition to R&D where a science background can come in handy. For e.g. working in technology transfer, quality control, technical writing, management, business development, application support, etc.
Then there are also science administrators, who are crucial for the functioning of any research establishment. You could become a science policy specialist who help script science policies at the national or institute level. You could also specialize in intellectual property and patent laws. Science journalism and outreach are also rapidly coming into their own in India, and this is a great choice for anyone with a passion for communication.
This is also a great time for science-driven entrepreneurship in India. If you have a great business idea involving a life science concept and finding, by all means, go for it!
The starting point for any of these is a good science education. So it is very important to make sure you are not limiting yourself or putting self-imposed boundaries on what you want to become.
I agree Shreya, so let’s come back to the question of what a science degree actually can get you? Smita?
Well Lakshmi, a PhD or a Masters or sometimes even a Bachelors degree in science goes much beyond teaching you facts about mitochondria or taxonomy or even how to hold a pipette. I would argue what it actually does is it teaches you how to think critically and rationally, and how to systematically solve any given problem. It also allows you to build hard and soft skills that can be applied across fields.
I completely agree. And there are a bunch of skills you gain during this process, which you may not even think about or realize. For e.g. all those nights poring over literature or even textbooks? You often come out with strong independent study and research skills which you can keep applying in many different areas of your life. You get used to learning new things and continuously developing fresh skills - which is important in almost any profession that you can think of.
Absolutely Shreya, and as any PhD student will agree, you learn how to cope with a heavy workload, and how to manage your time.You learn how remain inspired and motivated, despite experiments not always yielding expected results. You learn how to navigate professional relationships, with your mentor, with your labmates - again this is extremely valuable no matter what career path you choose.
It is important to think about your degree in science not just as another milestone on your road to a PI-ship or a research career, but as an all-round, holistic training, that prepares you for a number of different exciting opportunities down the road. And it is important that you recognise and apply this training when those opportunities actually arrive.
So, how do you do this? How do you set about this process of choosing the career that you are best suited to, and then achieving success in that career?
First, you need to understand that there is no magic bullet. No matter which direction you choose to go into, hard work, patience and discipline will always pay off. And so will being truly passionate about the field you choose to work in.
In this podcast series, we will talk about a few main steps that should allow you to weigh your options and make this decision wisely.
First and foremost, you should spend some time in getting to know yourself. What are you passionate about? What are your interests? What skills do you have? What are your core values? How can you integrate all of these to understand what area of work you are most suited to? In the next couple of episodes, we will dive deeper into these points.
After this, we will move on to the best way to research career options. Even in this internet age, it is very easy to be misinformed In addition, in spite of there being a lot of information in the public domain, it is still hard to distill what is actually useful.
And there is a special advantage if one can gain access to relevant and reliable private information. This comes only through networking. We will discuss various ways in which you can do targeted research on suitable career options, and break any networking barriers. We also have a few special episodes planned with guest speakers that will help us explore some of these critical aspects.
Now, let us say you have done all of this. You have aligned your interests and skills with possible career options, you have done your research, and you have decided - hey! This, this right here is my dream career. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Or maybe you are more cautious, and you have hit upon multiple options - A, B, and C - in that order, as your choice of career paths. That’s a great start in itself, but you are still very much at the beginning of your journey.
Isn't it? This is because you still have to prepare yourself for that career, and make sure that you have built the right skill sets to enter and progress in that profession. The first step here is actually applying for and getting a job.
We will be covering this in some of our later episodes - how to dissect job ads, how to prepare your resume, how to write a cover letter, how to interview well etc.
Secondly, once you have landed the job, you need to think about how to make the most of that opportunity for both personal and professional development.
We will talk briefly about professionalism and work ethics in a later episode, as well as about the importance of efficient networking, of mentoring and role models.
Finally, we need to remember that a career today, in the 21st century is very different from what a career used to look like 50, 30 or even 10 years ago. We no longer go into jobs thinking that “I am going to retire from this position”. Nor do we have the security of thinking that a job that is relevant today will remain equally relevant tomorrow. You can not rely on a fixed skill set or consider your education “finished” once you get a degree.
True Shreya. Instead what is required is to maintain a certain degree of flexibility and keep alive a willingness to learn on-the-job. . The skills we gain during the course of one job can be relevant in another, and even lead to another, sometimes in really unexpected ways.
So, to sum up - pay attention to your needs and values, keep your options open and never stop learning.
Thanks Smita, I couldn't agree more.
To all our listeners, Thanks for listening, and do watch out for our next episode, where we will discuss how to objectively assess your own skills, interests and values, and how to use this knowledge to make an informed career choice.
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